Gerry Farrell: Whodunnit ... the cops or the accused?

Steven Avery, left, listens to his defence attorney Dean Strang in the courtroom. Picture: AP/Bruce Halmo
Steven Avery, left, listens to his defence attorney Dean Strang in the courtroom. Picture: AP/Bruce Halmo
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IN most TV crime fiction, the criminal justice system whirrs into action, the DNA tests are indisputable, vital evidence is uncovered in the nick of time, the guilty party is convicted and justice is served.

Which is kind of reassuring. We all have a basic need to feel protected by the state. In real life, things are rarely so cut and dried. Especially in America. Over there, it’s easy for an innocent man to end up in jail. Maybe that’s why the Netflix documentary series Making A Murderer has become this year’s favourite binge-watch. (Spoiler alert: stop reading this now if it’s on your must-see list.)

Making A Murderer leads us by twists and turns into a heart of darkness we never expected to encounter when we started watching. I have never before become so addicted to a true story. If I lie too long in bed glued to my laptop I develop painful sciatica in my left leg. Once I started this show, I forgot the pain. When it got too sore for me to lie on my back any more, I lay on my side and propped my laptop on its side too. The two college filmmakers who made the series find a shocking, real-life cliff-hanger to end every episode so however tired you feel, you click that damn button and start watching the next chapter.

In the first episode a 41-year-old man called Steven Avery is released from prison after serving 18 years for a rape he didn’t commit. We quickly learn that the local police department decided he was their man before there was any real evidence he’d committed the crime. They didn’t like him. He’d had a few run-ins with them in the past. So when evidence came to light that another man was a much more solid suspect, they buried it. Eventually, a new system of testing DNA was developed and the real culprit was proved to have committed the rape. When there was a public outcry over the wrongful conviction, the state of Wisconsin investigated itself – and exonerated itself.

With the help of lawyers and politicians, Steven Avery sets out to prove criminal negligence by the police department, suing them for $36 million. Scarcely a day after the law officers who wrongly convicted him are deposed in preparation for their trial, Avery is re-arrested and put on trial for the murder of a local car magazine photographer, Theresa Halbach.

As the prosecution and defence lawyers make their cases, we see behind the scenes of the investigation. Before too long, it begins to seem suspiciously as if the police have planted evidence to incriminate Avery.

The backdrop to the action is the Avery family’s scrapyard, a neglected, muddy field full of rusting, cannibalised vehicles surrounded by trailers and sheds where the family store equipment or live their lives. It’s here that the victim’s incinerated remains are found. Avery’s blood is found in the victim’s vehicle. But the police department have a sample of his blood in their crime lab from his rape investigation and it has been tampered with.

One minute you think “He did it”. The next minute you think “They framed him”. You find yourself staring into the eyes of every police officer that takes the stand to see if they’re lying. None of the characters in the courtroom are easy to like apart from Avery’s lawyers. Everyone seems to have a secret agenda. In the end, Steven Avery is found guilty of the murder. He is currently serving a life sentence. But there are so many doubts swirling around his conviction that there is almost certainly going to be a re-trial. And a second Netflix series. I can’t wait.

Were your ancestors slave owners?

“Britons, never, never, never shall be slaves,” goes the song. But we were once slave owners. We think of slavery as something that happened in America, immortalised in Hollywood movies. What we don’t know is that Britain was the main slave trader. And we don’t want to know, as Scottish writer Jackie Kay puts it, that “two days before a slave ship docked, it could be smelt, the putrescence of blood, faeces, vomit and rotting bodies carried downwind into the port”. Sharks followed the slave ships for the pickings. One out of three Africans didn’t survive the journey. They were packed as tight as if they were in coffins. They were sold in pubs, inns and coffee houses. They were sold in London, Bristol and Liverpool. And they were sold in Glasgow. Per head of population, more slaves were owned in Scotland than anywhere else.

In 1807, parliament passed the Abolition Of The Slave Trade Act. For the next thirty years, the slaves stayed shackled as slave owners and plantation owners fought to prevent the act being made law. Finally, in 1838, slavery was abolished across the British Empire.

What happened next is still astonishing. When the Abolition Act was passed there were 46,000 slave owners in Britain. Since they regarded their slaves as valuables, like money or houses, they demanded compensation for the loss of this “property”. And they got it. In a bailout only eclipsed by the bank bailout of 2009, British slave owners were paid a total of £20 million compensation. That would be £16 billion in today’s money. The slaves got nothing. Under another clause of the same act, they had to give their former masters 45 hours of unpaid labour every week for four more years after their “liberation”.

We talk proudly of great ships built on the Clyde, forgetting that many of them sailed to the Colonies to fill their holds with suffering human cargo. We’re good at forgetting the uglier side of our history. But let’s not forget that slavery still exists. Human traffickers send women in shipping containers to be sold into prostitution. On a lesser scale, only a couple of years ago Tesco was employing nightshift workers under the Tory government’s Work for Welfare scheme and paying them nothing. And to this day there are wealthy law firms in this country who happily employ unpaid interns. They can call it what they like. I call it modern-day slavery.

£eith Decides to fight litter

£eith Decides is a fund of £22,000 that can be allocated to any Leith-based social project. What’s really special about it is that the Leith community decides who gets funded by voting for the projects they like best. It’s called participatory budgeting.

This year there were 36 applications and 24 of them got enough votes to get the funding they asked for. I’m pleased to say that Leithers Don’t Litter was one of them and I’d like to thank everybody who voted for us. We won’t let you down.